Review-“Dracula”-“The Devil’s Waltz”

Well, it seems that NBC’s Dracula might have finally hit its stride.  In tonight’s episode, we not only got to see a lot more of the brutality we expect from Dracula, but also gained a glimpse into his past with Renfield.  Meanwhile, Mina finds herself growing dissatisfied with the changes in Jonathan, and both Lucy and Lady Jayne discover the painful truth that their loves do not return their feelings.

Tonight’s episode picked up right where we left off two week’s ago, with Renfield held captive and tortured in order to gain information about Grayson/Dracula’s potential weaknesses.  In the process, we learn that Dracula once saved him from certain death at the hands of some racist thugs and, as a result, he has maintained steadfastly loyal to his employer through all of their trials and travails together.  Indeed, so powerful is his loyalty that no amount of torture (and some of it is quite graphic and obviously excruciating) can tear the knowledge from him.  Dracula, true to form, rescues his companion and, in one of the episode’s most touching scenes, he even nurses him back to health.  The relationship between these two men is shaping up to, to me at least, to be much more affecting and meaningful than that we between any of the men and women of the series.

However, I would also like to note that the torture scenes with Renfield carried some very troubling racial overtones, especially as the tortures were being carried out by a white woman.  Again, I’m not entirely certain that the series had anything definitive in mind with this representational strategy, but it does conjure up many unfortunate overtones, especially for American audiences, that we would do well to be cognizant, and critical of these issues when they come up in popular culture.  Just because we like to delude ourselves into believing that we magically live in a postracial society does not mean that scenes like this do not carry with them the baggage of centuries of oppressive strategies of representation.

Indeed, the strength of tonight’s episode stems in no small part from the fact that it emphasized the interpersonal relationships rather than the political and social plot lines that, as I have noted before, have never seemed all that compelling or convincing.  Although Lady Jayne’s appearance in tonight’s episode was belated–she only briefly shows up at Mina and Jonathan’s engagement party–it still managed to convey to us the depth of her feeling for Grayson/Dracula.  For all of her formidable appearance and fighting abilities, it would seem that she has allowed herself to develop some dangerous and potentially deadly feelings for this mysterious American.  Nor have these feelings gone unnoticed by the other members of the Order.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether her feelings of love will turn (as they so quickly can) into those of absolute hatred, especially as it has become obvious to everyone that Dracula’s interest in Mina is more than just of a benevolent benefactor.

The one plotline that continues to taunt us, however, is the obvious attraction that Lucy feels for her friend Mina.  Dracula continues to toy with us on this one, constantly showing us just enough of a glance to suggest Lucy’s inner turmoil at the sight of her beloved walking into the arms a man.  At this point, I’m not exactly sure what the series is going for in this particular love triangle, especially as Lucy has not really been given enough of a personality or development as a character to make us all that invested in what happens to her.  The cynical side of me wants to say that it is for the lesbian-love titillation factor that is so downright icky, but perhaps they have something better planned for the three of them.  There’s certainly a lot they could do, but we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that they actually get around to doing them.

All in all, tonight was definitely one of, if not the strongest episodes that I have seen so far.  They managed to keep it fairly focused–with a few extraneous bits here and there–proving what can happen when you write a tightly plotted story that focuses on interpersonal relationships rather than broader cultural or social plots (which tend to not make that much sense, anyway).  It looks like we are going to return next week to Dracula’s quest to be able to walk in the sun which, while still a little out there, nevertheless has some interesting potential.  Hopefully, it will hit the same balance of visceral shock–who can ever forget Dracula’s hallucination that he slices Jonathan’s throat during a dance at the engagement party–and powerful and evocative emotion that we saw this week.  If so, we might just get lucky and have a few more episodes than the ten we are guaranteed.

 

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Review-“Once Upon a Time”-“Think Lovely Thoughts”

Well, this was certainly a night that will go down in Once Upon a Time history as one of the best episodes since the end of the first season.  After a few weeks of staying somewhat in place, we finally gained a glimpse of where the first half of this season is going to end up.  So much happened in tonight’s episode that it’s rather hard to summarize, but here’s a glimpse:  in the past, we learn that Rumplestilskin’s cowardly father abandoned him to stay in Neverland and become Peter Pan (the biggest shock in the series’ history, in my opinion), while in the present he faces his father and is imprisoned in Pandoar’s Box, while Peter Pan succeeds in stealing Henry’s heart.

As has been the case throughout this season, Robbie Kay continues to steal the show as Peter Pan, combining elfin good looks with a pure evil that is unmatched even by the other two big baddies of the series, Regina or Rumple.  This episode helped us to understand a little of what makes him tick (mainly that he’s a coward who is always on the look out for this own benefit), while also leaving us enough ambiguity to speculate about just how much feeling he had, or ever had, for his son (it’s worth noting that he adopted his name from a doll that he had given the young Rumple).  What is so compelling about this Peter Pan, especially as Kay portrays him, is that he manages to bring to the fore those features that made the other Disney Peter so appealing, while also bringing out the more sinister components that were always lurking just beneath the surface.

Ultimately, as always, this is one of the series’ greatest strengths.  Just as Red turned out to be a werewolf that was actually responsible for the death of her lover, Peter turns out to be a villain that, while purely and unequivocally evil, nevertheless has a compelling backstory that fleshes out what was merely hinted at in earlier incarnations of the character.  Most noteworthy in tonight’s episode was, of course, the final confrontation between Rumple and Peter, both of whom are fathers who abandoned their sons because of their own interests.  Just as importantly, both Carlyle and Kay bring a powerful, afffective, and electric performance to the scene.  As a result, we finally learn that Rumple has been telling the truth all along; he really does want to save Henry and make a fresh start with his life (though it remains to be seen whether either his son or anyone else will be willing to let him do so.  The Dark One has a lot of atoning to do, after all).  His father, however, finally proves that he is willing to sacrifice even his son if it means that he will be able to hang on to the immortality that he gained at such a high price in the first place.

Lest we forget the other members of the cast, it is important to note that Emma, Snow, and Regina continue to prove how complex their characters are.  Although old antagonisms die hard, it is fascinating to watch the ways in which the three of them are united by their desire to save Henry.  Regina in particular has come a long way since we first met her in season one, though there is still a hard edge to her that lurks, not always very far, beneath the surface.  The fact that Henry teeters on the brink of death will no doubt pose new challenges to these three strong women, and it remains to be seen what they will do in an attempt to save the men that they love (remember that David/Prince Charming is still dying from the poisoned wound he received earlier in the season).

Tonight’s episode raised some big questions.  Should one be willing to forgive anything, if the person asking for the forgiveness seems to genuinely be seeking redemption.  Is redemption even possible for someone like Rumple, for example, who has ruined countless lives and has confessed to have been willing to kill Henry before he found out he was his grandson?  Does even the possibility of Belle waiting for him back in Storybrooke offer a reasonable hope of redemption and a new life?  The show does not seem to want to provide any hard and fast answers to those questions, though it does provide glimpses of an answer through Pan and Rumple. Whereas the former cannot see past his own ambition, Rumple does show signs, however faint, that he might just be beginning to change for the better.  As Neal rightly points out, however, it is precisely because Rumple has so much power that he cannot be trusted.  However, there is some indication that, no matter how much we love the evil Rumple and the conniving Mr. Gold, he might just be ready to turn over a new leaf and begin a life that is at least somewhat normal and good with his newly rediscovered family.

When all is said and done, this was in many ways the strongest episode yet, bar none.  The narrative remained tight, focused, and forward-oriented, while also leaving enough hanging in the air to give us something to look forward to next week.   Although it is still not entirely certain whether ABC will renew its fairy tale series, the last two episodes, both of which reminded us why we fell in love with the series in the first place, may just convince wandering fans to come back to the fold.  Of course, we’ve still got several episodes left before the series goes on its winter hiatus, but if tonight’s episode was any indication, they will no doubt be full of as much entertaining and nail-biting action as we have seen so far.  After all, there are still so many questions that need answering.  (How) will Rumple manage to escape or be freed from Pandora’s Box?  (How) will David recover from his poisoning?  The worst part?  We have to wait two weeks to find out.

Saturday Matinee–“The Women” and “Land of the Pharaohs”

This is the first of my new series, “Saturday Matinee,” in which I review classic films from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  For tonight’s edition, I have chosen two widely divergent films, George Cukor’s The Women (1939) and Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaohs (1955).

To begin with The Women, you would be hard-pressed to find a film that more deftly and acidly comments on the play between the sexes.  When sweet and charming Mary Haines’ (Norma Shearer) husband cheats on her with perfume counter girl Crystal (Joan Crawford), the stage if set for a battle of the sexes in which only one of them appears on screen (there is not a single man in the entire cast).  In the end, the film proves that love conquers all, and Mary reunites with her husband at the end, though he remains offscreen.

The film is easily one of Hollywood’s finest comedies, and it provides a compelling and sharply funny view of the relationships among women across class and racial lines.  Although the women of the film constantly talk about the men in their lives, the strongest and most affective relations in the film are among women, especially among Mary and her daughter.  However, some of the most entertaining relationships are antagonistic, as the various women scheme and talk about one another behind their backs, even while feigning friendship.

What emerges from the performances of these characters–it is worth noting, by the way, that in real life Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were rivals at MGM–is a critical commentary about the ways in which these women’s lives are so structured by their social class that they often fail to realize just how important those female relationships are.  Just as importantly, however, it is important to recognize the extent to which the film is also highly critical of the ways in which men abuse the trust of the women in their lives by seeking some measure of escape outside of their marriages.

Just as importantly, however, the film does not seek to impose a particular vision of female subjectivity.  Instead, it points out the multiplicity of female perspectives that comprised the lives and experiences of women of various classes and (to a much lesser extent) races.  Thus, the film evades and to some extent denies a rigid imposition of a fixed meaning.  Instead, it invites and encourages an understanding of female subjectivity as itself full of contradictions and complexities that defy easy understanding (especially, I would argue, for many straight male viewers).

All in all, this is a fine example of how Hollywood films that ultimately affirm the power and primacy of the heterosexual union can still contain within them the seeds of subversion.  As David Halperin notes in How to Be Gay, the film is also widely popular among gay male audiences, an illustration of the potential gender subversion that such a film can contain, even within the restrictions imposed by classic Hollywood.  Is the film radical?  Certainly not, but maybe, just maybe, we can identify it as progressive.

If The Women has the potential to be read as advocating a complex and nuanced understanding of the position of women within 1930s American culture, Land of the Pharaohs is much less sanguine about the role of women.  The film tells the story of Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) who, concerned that he will not be able to take his vast wealth within him into the afterlife, commissions the construction of the Great Pyramid.  Unfortunately, his wife Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) is willing to do anything, including murder, to get that treasure for herself.

Featuring a cast of thousands (literally), the film is a visual delight, offering up the marvels that one expects to see in a 1950s epic film.  However, where the film is rather atypical of the genre is in its lack of a strong male character whose journey comprises the majority of the film’s narrative (as is the case, for example, with such other epics of that time such as David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, and The Robe).  However, it does offer some distinct moral lessons, especially about the dangers of greed, a lesson that applies equally to both the pharaoh and to his treacherous queen.

It is the queen, however, who is in some respects both the most interesting and least compelling of the film’s characters.  Throughout, she shows incredible cunning and cleverness in the ways in which she manipulates the men around her to do her bidding as she claws her way to the top (which includes, notably, tricking  the pharaoh’s son by his first wife to play a flute, which in turn draws the cobra that ends up killing her).  At the same time, however, the film allows her to be outwitted almost too easily by the pharaoh’s loyal adviser, the priest Hamar, who lures her into her dead husband’s tomb where they are all imprisoned.  Of course, such an act also leaves the audience in no doubt as to the price a woman pays when she dares to seek a power that is not rightfully hers.

All in all, the film is an interesting one, though more for its production history than for its actual plot (which is also rather short in epic terms, clocking in at under two hours).   This film was, in many ways, unlike anything Hawks had done before or after.  This, combined with the fact t hat it is rather un-epic (despite its large cast and other powerful visuals) may serve to explain why the film was not terribly successful at the box office.  However, it is still worth a watch for those who want to see the ways in which the genre of the epic was not as uniform as is sometimes supposed.  It is interesting to note, for example, that while some of the other major studios were well-known for their production of epics (Fox, MGM, and Paramount most conspicuously), Warner Bros. (the studio behind this film) was not.  For all of these reasons, Land of the Pharaohs is more than worth a watch.

Review: “Dracula”–“From Darkness to Light”

NBC’s horror/drama/science fiction series certainly has a lot of balls in the air after this most recent episode.  Dracula is attempting to find a way to walk in the sunlight with the aid of Van Helsing, Mina and Jonathan are continuing with their wedding plans while Lucy is filled with regret, Lady Jayne finds herself becoming more and more infatuated with the exceedingly dangerous Dracula, and Renfield is captured by the duplicitous Lord Thomas Davenport.

The Good

There was a lot to like about this episode, starting with the obvious chemistry between the leads.  Meyers and De Gouw in particular shine as the two lovers separated by death who have somehow managed to find one another again in Victorian London.  The real sparks, however, are between Meyers and Smurfit (who portrays Lady Jayne).  The two practically light up the screen whenever they appear together, and this adds some much-needed electricity to their scenes together.  Indeed, their twisted and convoluted relationship is one of the aspects of the series that works really well, due in large part to the portrayal of their characters.

The true highlight of the series so far, however, is Renfield (Nonson Anozie), who continues to serve as his master’s conscience and voice of reason.  Whereas Dracula has a great deal of political vision and great ambitions, he sometimes fails to see the important things that Renfield can.  This makes his capture by Lord Davenport (undertaken outside the auspices of the Order) something of a blow for Dracula, and it might even lead to his undoing.

The Bad

Although there is a lot to praise in this series—the luscious set designs, the solid performances by most of the cast—it is still plagued by some of the problems that arose at the outset.  While its ability to bring together several different genres is what sets it apart, it also serve as one of its greatest weaknesses.  However, this may be just a matter of execution rather than of the inadvisability of genre mixing.  In one episode we saw not only the introduction and quick death of a new character, but we also saw Dracula’s continuing attempts to create a new source of energy and to be able to walk in the sun, the efforts of the Order to eradicate the vampire threat, the ongoing preparations for Jonathan’s and Mina’s wedding, and the Order’s machinations to control the oil fields currently under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  Any two or three of these would provide enough material for almost an entire season’s worth of good writing.  As it is, the show tries to keep too many balls in the air at one time, and as a result most of the storylines suffer.  For example, we hardly saw anything of Van Helsing this episode, and the angst Lucy feels at Mina’s impending nuptials feels rather trite and tacked on.

It seems to me that Dracula suffers from a similar syndrome to that which afflicts other high-concept series like Once Upon a Time.  Faced with the reality of network programming (in which a series has to prove its value over the course of a season in order to be considered for renewal), Dracula quite simply tries to take on too much at one time, and as a result it doesn’t really do any of them all that well.  Of all of it, Dracula’s attempt to find an alternate source of energy that would undermine the Order’s control of oil tends to fall flat.  The mention of it in this episode was no more convincing than it was in the first.  Let’s hope that they find a way to make this particular thread more compelling.

The Ugly

Despite the fact that this series has some splendid production values (especially for a network series), there were a few moments in tonight’s episode that were visually unappealing.  In particular, the scene in which Dracula takes Lady Jayne to what appears to be a mud wrestling match between two scantily clad women—followed by a steamy sex scene—was both visually and ideologically repulsive.  One might expect something of this sort from HBO (who probably could have pulled it off with a lot more style), but coming from NBC it all seemed rather pointless and not at all entertaining.

All in all, “From Darkness to Light” set up some interesting premises that will hopefully be followed through before the series reaches its conclusion (its current ratings strongly suggest that it will not be renewed).  It looks as though next week, with a captured Renfield being tortured, might be one of the most interesting yet.

Grade:  B

Review: “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland”-“Heart of Stone”

It’s become something of a foregone conclusion that ABC’s series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland will not be renewed for a second season.  In my view, this is something of a tragedy, as the series continues to hold onto some strongly grounded storylines, as evidenced in the most recent outing, “Heart of Stone.”  In it, we saw heartbreaking glimpses of the past romance between the Knave and the Red Queen (Anastasia), Jafar seemingly managed to sink his fangs into the White Rabbit, Cyrus finally managed to escape from Jafar’s tower, and Alice found out that she was purer at heart than she had imagined.

I have to confess that I have never been much of a fan of the Red Queen, especially when I compare her to the sinister and seemingly inscrutable Queen of Hearts (before the revelation that she was, in fact, Cora from the original Once Upon a Time).  Her performance is almost too affected and simpering to be truly believable or tolerable.  However, tonight part of the changed as we got a glimpse of the complexity that simmers beneath that poisonously sugary exterior.  In fact, we learned that she is a woman who is accustomed to taking what she wants, though she is not without cognizance of what it costs her.  In fact, when Alice asks her that very question, the look on her face reveals that she knows quite well how much she has given up to gain the power that she has.  The question is:  will she be willing to give all of that up, if it means reuniting with the Knave?  (After all, it’s more than obvious that she still loves him).

A particularly compelling part of tonight’s episode was Alice’s confrontation with the demonic and villainous younger version of herself, which attempted to convince her to murder the Red Queen.  This was actually a chillingly sublime moment in a series that often skirts around the more disturbing aspects of the Lewis Carroll mythology upon which it is based.  Just as importantly, we got to see a glimpse of what Alice might have been like (and might still be like) should she give in to the powerful desire to gain revenge against those who have arrayed themselves against her and tortured and imprisoned the man that she loves.

One of the strongest parts of the episode, and indeed of the series as a whole, is the enigma posed by the White Rabbit.  We are constantly left guessing as to his motivations:  does he truly care about Alice, or is he only out to save his own skin?  What has he done that puts him in the power of the Red Queen?  What will happen now that he has seemingly switched allegiances to Jafar?  We simply do not know the answer to any of these questions as of yet, but we can hope that the series will manage to answer them before it reaches its end.

Lastly, we cannot forget to mention what is far and away the best part of the series, Jafar (played so capably by Naveen Andrews).  There is still a great deal that we do not know about him, but he still manages to steal the show whenever he appears onscreen.  In tonight’s episode, he once again managed to show just how ruthless he can be by slicing off the White Rabbit’s foot and then giving him exactly one minute in which to tell him what he wants to know (namely, who else Alice loves or cares for).  Although we learned some of what motivates this most deliciously evil of Disney villains—and it is worth pointing out that Andrews has done a magnificent job of translating the original animated villain to life in this new context—there is still much to be explained.  Who is the man that he has hanging in his tower (my secret suspicion is that it is his father).  What will he do when he finally has the power that he so desperately craves?  For that matter, what will he do with the Red Queen (since he obviously has no qualms about suborning her followers to his own cause).  All I can say for sure is that I will continue tuning in, if only to see what nefarious scheme Jafar will manage to hatch next (wouldn’t it be too divine if he managed to have a showdown with Cora?)

All in all, this episode continues the trend (started in “The Serpent”) of explaining why it is that the villains of this series act in the way that they do.  Just as importantly, however, it also freed Cyrus, thus moving the storyline forward in a refreshing way.  Most excitingly, there is a strong suggestion that the White Rabbit and Jafar will be making a voyage to Storybrooke, and there is no telling what sort of mayhem will ensue when they do.

Grade:  A-

The Queer Pleasures of Disney Villains

Upon a recent watching of the excellent YouTube video “The Spell Block Tango,” it occurred to me (as it does often), about just how queerly pleasurable Disney villains have always been.  From the sophisticated and cultured queerness of Scar to the over-the-top drag villainy of Ursula the Sea Witch, Disney villains consistently lend themselves to queer appropriations and queer pleasures, opening up spaces of engagement with the allegedly (heterosexual) family friendly fare that is constantly purveyed by Disney.

The Disney animated features canon abounds with figures of queer villainy.  A few examples include:  Ursula (who was, in fact, designed after famed drag performer Divine), Prince John (voiced by Peter Ustinov, who also played the obviously queer and simpering Emperor Nero in the epic film Quo Vadis), Jafar (who we are all is more in love with Aladdin than he is with Jasmine), Gaston (anyone who is so macho and in love with his own heterosexuality has to be queer), and Scar (with the deliciously divine British voice of Jeremy Irons, how can we not take a lot of queer pleasure out of this villain with the “lion’s share” of brains), and Maleficent (who, though not queer, has such a stunning sense of fashion that we can’t help but take a measure of queer pleasure in her).

On one level, all of these characters are simply fascinating, especially when compared to the often lackluster heroes and heroines that populate the Disney landscape (they may be pretty to look at but, for the most part, they are rather bland characters).  In their over-the-topness and their elaborate costumes, to say nothing of their punchy dialogue, these allegedly “evil” characters offer themselves up to the queer viewer as a source of camp pleasure, in that we as gay viewers take pleasure in the artifice and the catty cruelty that these characters so often exhibit.  It’s not that we don’t like Ariel and Eric, or Jasmine and Jafar, it’s simply that their heterosexual romance does not offer the same pleasure as that given us by the characters who exist outside of these heterosexual circuits (however, this does not mean that queer viewers cannot inhabit the position of a Disney princess and desire the prince).  To some extent, whether consciously or unconsciously, we know that those queer characters on screen are our screen likes and our screen egos, and so we identify with them, even as we know that we are not supposed to (they are the villains, after all).

So, what are the politics of all of this?  Is there something problematic about the fact that so many Disney villains are so explicitly coded as queer and that, significantly, so many queer viewers seemingly find pleasure and identification with these evil characters?  Are we as queer viewers buying into the pernicious cultural myth that we are somehow a pestilence and a disease upon the body social?  Of course, if we were adopting the ideology that comes with these images of queerness in Disney popular culture, then that would certainly be the case.  However, I would argue that something far more complex is at work here.  As Brett Farmer convincingly argues in his noteworthy book Spectacular Passions, gay male audiences frequently identify with the tortured and doomed young man (he uses the notable example of Montgomery Clift) not because they see themselves as fundamentally doomed or tragic, but because they recognize in that particular figure the social forces that have resulted in his particular victimized status.  In a similar fashion, I would argue, queer viewers see in the Disney villain not simply an unadulterated and incomprehensible evil, as seems to be what the films themselves want us to take away, but instead a character who is, like the queer viewer, the victim of social oppression. The fact that so many Disney villains are denied backstories—we do not know anything about Ursula, for example, except that she was banished and exiled, for crimes that remain unexplained—allows a space for queer viewers to appropriate these villains and give them stories that make their alleged evil an added level of intelligibility through a queer lens.  In sort, gay men are wresting control away from the narratives themselves, understanding these characters as far more complex, captivating, and ultimately understandable than would seem to be the films’ intention.

All of this is not to suggest that all gay men engage with Disney in quite the same way.  Indeed, there are gay men that specifically do not like Disney or that “grow out of it” and cease to take pleasure in it after their childhood days are over.  However, what I hope I have shown is that Disney does offer queer viewers a multitude of pleasures that exist outside of the normal channels through which mainstream viewers take pleasure in these films.  This issue was brought home to me recently in one of the classes I teach, in which a student responded with dismay to my suggestion that, as a queer viewer, I took pleasure in the fact that the lion scar was so obviously coded as queer.  To her, it seemed incomprehensible that such a thing as queerness could have an influence on the cherished memories of her childhood (she did not say this in so many words, but the insinuation was clear).  In a world in which heterosexuality is still the privileged norm, and even more so in the case of Disney, queer viewers have to find new and challenging ways to engage with the popular culture that surrounds them.

Of course, Disney has not remained unaware of the fact that their villains have fan followings of their own, as the upcoming Maleficent film, as well as rumored projects about a Cruella de Vil and a wicked stepmother film, attest.  One can but hope that these films will continue the proud Disney tradition of making villains that are just as fascinating, if not more so, than their heroic counterparts.  And it can be equally hoped that they offer up similar, and perhaps even more poignant, queer pleasures.

Why Straight Audiences Don’t “Get” Gay Films

While I was visiting my parents recently, I had the distinct pleasure of watching the classic film The Uninvited, a ghost film that tells the story of a brother and sister who move into a haunted house and find themselves in the middle of a domestic melodrama involving adultery, ghostly apparitions, and the unnamed (and unnamable) specter of lesbian desire.  One character in particular, Miss Holloway, exhibits the typical qualities of classic Hollywood cinema lesbianism, including an overwhelming and excessive desire for a dead woman (as occurs in the film Rebecca), as well as a certain predatory attitude toward a younger woman (alleged to be the daughter of Miss Holloway’s dead friend but in reality the product of adultery).

When I mentioned to my mother (with whom I was watching the film), that the character was clearly a lesbian—assuming that she would be able to read the codes of Hollywood as easily as I could—she responded with a fierce denial.  The character was not a lesbian asserted, and I hardly dared to point out that Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca was one as well, since it was fairly obvious by then that she would also disagree with that assertion.  This exchange led me to reflect upon the ways in which historic audiences respond to particular films in particular ways, picking up on the codes of viewership that Hollywood utilizes to express desire.  When that desire happens to be homosexual, and if the film happens to be made during the period of classical Hollywood, the viewing strategies historic audiences utilize can be quite different.

Patricia White makes this point explicit in her excellent study Uninvited:  Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, in which she argues that lesbian desire and lesbian characters often haunt the edges of cinema, simultaneously constructing and inviting lesbian encoding while also disavowing such viewing strategies.  As a feminist and may male viewer several generations removed from the film The Uninvited, I come to experience of watching it equipped with certain viewing strategies, some more subversive than others, that my very straight-identified mother and, by extension, other mainstream heterosexual viewers, do not.  Trained to know that gay people are seldom named as such in classic Hollywood films, I must look for them at the margins where, as White puts it, they continue to haunt the text of the very films that seek to strenuously to either marginalize or destroy them (again, the case of Mrs. Danvers comes to mind.  At the end of Rebecca she is consumed by the fire that she has set).  Thus, although Miss Holloway can be read by “straight” audiences as just a friend who is devoted to the memory of her beloved companion, I know that the film is really doing something else here, that there is something more than just friendship going on here.  Whether the film entirely intends me to or not, I find myself drawn to the lesbian character and reading her as such, investing her with those very qualities that make her appealing as a representative of same sex desire on screen, even if the film wants me to read that desire as inherently pathological and destructive.

What is really striking, however, is the resistance that my mother exhibited to this particular reading strategy.  Nor is she the only one who has had such a response to queer readings of allegedly straight films.  This was brought home to me in a very powerful way when one of my students responded negatively to my assertion that Scar, the villain of The Lion King, is queerly coded and may offer gay viewers a non-normative node of pleasure in an otherwise very hetero-oriented film.  There is a strong ambivalence and often downright resistance of straight culture to appropriations of its icons for gay purposes and this is especially true when one considers the accusations and rumors of the homosexuality of various actors.  There are still those, for example, who take great umbrage at those who assert that Cary Grant, that paragon of romantic masculine heterosexuality, may have actually been a little less heterosexual than is commonly assumed.  Even those who are “okay” with homosexuality still feel threatened by the possibility that their beloved icons, whether they be favorite childhood characters or favored Hollywood stars, may be tainted with the stain of the love that dare not speak its name.

Naturally, all of this has begun to change with the advent of more “well-rounded” or “developed” roles for gay characters, though we still remain conspicuously absent, or at least downplayed, within much Hollywood cinema.  There is still a sense of in which we are, as Patricia White puts it, the uninvited, excluded from the dreams that the cinema produces for the heterosexual mainstream consume base.  While there may be more of us on screen, we still are the “other,” the irregularity against which the “normal” heterosexual viewer measures itself.  All of this is not to suggest that there are absolutely no straight viewers who can pick up gay or lesbian subtexts in films, whether of classical Hollywood or later minting.  The strategies of queer reading can be learned and practiced by those whose lived experience is not necessarily structured along homosexual lines (indeed, some of the best queer readers I know are straight).  However, I would argue that the stakes for those viewers are less intense and weighted than they are for gay audiences, who still have to struggle and really work to find their own desires and screen likes represented in mainstream film.  We have over a century of neglect and repression within cinematic representation to deal with and overcome, and that is a very long process indeed.  Unlike some, however, I do see hope on the horizon in terms of the ways in which LGBT people are represented in film.  At this point, however, I think it is still far too early to tell what the future will hold nor, significantly, do I think that those of us in the LGBT community are yet entirely sure what it is that we want to see in our screen representation.  But that’s a post for another day.